The Woodward News

February 8, 2013

Potential ‘threatened’ listing a concern

State officials working to preserve lesser prairie chicken

Chris Cooper
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — Many state leaders and area ranchers alike are against the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as "threatened" on the federal endangered species list.

These people shared their views during a public hearing held in Woodward on Tuesday, Feb. 5. The hearing was sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers classifying the bird, which has habitat in areas of Northwest Oklahoma and the Panhandle, as a threatened species.

State government officials, representatives from oil, gas, and wind energy companies, ranchers, and environmentalist groups attended the meeting at the High Plains Technology Center to voice their opinions on the potential listing of the bird.

Susan Jacobsen, southwest regional chief of the US Fish and Wildlife Services' Division of Threatened and Endangered Species, opened the meeting by explaining a little bit about why the bird was up for potential listing as a threatened species.

Jacobsen said after reviewing most recently available scientific information, it is likely that the lesser prairie chicken will become endangered within the foreseeable future.

She shared the problems the species is facing as community and industrial development has resulted in habitat fragmentation reducing the birds' habitat range by 84 percent of what it once was.

This shrinking habitat area is problematic because the birds require large areas of grassland for survival, she said.

Added protection measures for the prairie chicken could therefore help to protect the native grasslands where they live as well as other migratory birds who depend on the grasslands for survival as well, Jacobsen said.



COMMENTS FROM OFFICE OF OKLAHOMA SECRETARY OF ENVIRONMENT

Following Jacobsen's address, Tyler Powell, office director for the Oklahoma Office of the Secretary of Environment, took the stand to comment on the matter on behalf of State Environment Secretary Gary Sherrer.

"This is a very, very important issue to state of Oklahoma, and we're proud of the strides we've taken to preserve the lesser prairie chicken," Powell said.

Powell said that the state has already spent $26 million on conservation and research efforts to benefit the species.

He said preservation efforts have included partnerships established between the state of Oklahoma and agriculture and energy industries.  He said these group efforts to preserve the prairie chicken should preclude federal intervention  and listing on the endangered species list.

Powell said that since 2011, Secretary Sherrer has been working on strategies to avoid listing the prairie chicken as threatened. He said that by working with the Oklahoma state legislature, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and Oklahoma industry, they believe they've developed a habitat conservation plan that balances the preservation of prairie chicken as well as the growth of industry across the state.

"I'm proud to say the Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat and Conservation Plan has been well received is currently being implemented by a variety of stakeholders," he said.

Powell ended his address saying that a 6-month extension prior to a decision on the listing of the bird as threatened would be "invaluable." He said the additional time would allow for further scientific investigation to see the effectiveness of the state's current efforts to manage the species.



OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION'S VIEWPOINT

Richard Hatcher, Director of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, then took the stand to address the board.

Hatcher agreed that he believed partnerships were in place to voluntarily limit threats to the prairie chicken, without the necessity of listing it under the Endangered Species Act, and that the state of Oklahoma had the preservation of the bird under control.

He also mentioned that Candidate Conservation Agreement Assurances (CCAA's) were currently under development that would give landowners who agree to implement conservation measures the assurance that they will not be asked to do more if the species later requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Hatchet expressed the seriousness which the state was taking in the preservation of the bird, stating it had already committed over $1 million to research to benefit the preservation of the species through the University of Oklahoma and through the efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hatcher said that the wildlife protection agencies of the 5 states the lesser prairie chicken resides in, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, are currently working together to ensure the preservation of the species. He said the Endangered Species Act was not necessary to the birds' preservation and that through partnerships they would be able to limit damage from energy transmission lines, wind farms, agriculture, and the oil industry voluntarily and at the state level.

"Five states will go on record saying we can conserve this species on state level," he said.



STATE SENATOR SPEAKS OUT

State Sen. Mike Shulz, R-Altus, speaking on behalf of himself as well as State Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, also encouraged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hold off on their decision to list the prairie chicken as threatened.

Shulz, who previously served on the Oklahoma Endangered Species and Economic Development Task Force, praised the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's plan known as the Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Conservation Program.  He said it is a program designed to help private landowners develop, preserve, restore, enhance and manage wildlife habitat on their land.  

The senator said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now just needs to give the state time for the conservation plan to work.

"I believe it's critical for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow this plan to be fully implemented and see the results we expect before any risk determination is made," he said.

Shulz referred to a recent arial survey across the entirety of the prairie chickens' habitat, which he claimed had come back better than anticipated with more than 37,000 birds counted across the range. He took the survey results as a positive indication of the effectiveness of the state's conservation plan, especially considering the record droughts the area has undergone over the last 2 years.

The state senator also argued that listing the bird as threatened could have negative side effects, as landowners might then be more concerned with keeping the bird off their land to avoid the federal regulations that go along with it than they are concerned with preserving the bird.



AN ALTERNATIVE: WILDLIFE HABITAT EXCHANGES

Karen Askeland, communications assistant  with the Environmental Defense Fund speaking on behalf of Conservation Science Director David Wolfe, proposed another alternative preservation measure.

"Our solution, known as Wildlife Habitat Exchanges, works by offering ranchers and farmers the opportunity to voluntarily create and maintain vital lesser prairie chicken habitat. Energy companies and other developers pay the landowners for this "mitigation service" in order to meet their obligations to offset wildlife impacts."

Askeland listed the benefits of the proposal, saying Wildlife Habitat Exchanges give farmers and ranchers another revenue stream while avoiding potentially contentious political battles in favor of a positive framework that promotes wildlife recovery and economic prosperity.

She backed up these claims saying, "We've seen this type of exchange program work in Texas at Fort Hood Army base where neighboring ranchers contributed to growing populations of golden cheeked warblers."

"A similar tool was adopted by the US Fish and Wildlife agency for the dunes sagebrush lizard in Texas as well," she said. "We are confident that this solution can work for the lesser prairie chicken and put the bird on a positive trajectory in the short timeframe we have."



VIEWS FROM STATE ENERGY LEADERS AND AREA RANCHERS

The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association's Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Brian Woodard, Environmental Director at OG&E Energy Corp Usha Turner, Angie Burckhalter with Devon Energy all expressed concern for about what the listing of the prairie chicken would entail for the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma.

They were concerned about the restrictions that such a listing would put on drilling in prairie chicken habitat areas and the negative effect that would have on the Oklahoma economy.

Director of Regulatory Affairs for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Marla Peek addressed the board as a representative of farmers ranchers and rural residents.  Peek commended the current conservation efforts in place at the state level and encouraging the US Fish and Wildlife Service to, rather than step in with federal regulation, find more means of providing economic incentives for farmers and ranchers to preserve the birds that reside on their privately owned land.

Several area ranchers also addressed the board to state their concerns as well.

Alan Jett, a rancher out of Beaver County whose ranch resides in the middle of the prairie chickens' habitat stated, "I think I can speak for my fellow ranchers when I say we'd like to keep efforts on a more local, state level. If you want our help we need solid science to tell us what needs done and the economic incentives to do so. The majority of these birds reside on privately owned land, you really need us to work with you, so that's how this is going to work."

After everyone present at Tuesday's meeting who was interested in speaking was given an opportunity to do so, the board thanked the crowd on behalf of the US Fish and Wildlife Services for the good points they made and assured them that their comments would be fully considered before coming to final decision.



ADDITIONAL COMMENTS TO BE ACCEPTED ONLINE AND BY MAIL

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting public comments on the lesser prairie chicken matter until March 11, 2013.

To submit a comment online, visit regulations.gov and search for docket number FWS-R2-ES-2012-0071.  Or you can mail written comments to: Public Comments Processing, Attn.: FWS-R2-ES-2012-0071, Division of Policy and Directives Management, US Fish and Wildlife Services, 44-1 N Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203.

After receiving and reviewing all comments the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will make a decision on the prairie chicken's status by Sept. 30.